The Big Ten regular season championship was gone, likely along with a top four seed in the upcoming N.C.A.A. tournament and outside confidence in the program’s ability to have any sustained postseason success.
It turns out that was the perfect recipe to simply let things fly and have adversity roll off the back.
“I thought we had more fun this game than we’ve had in a long time,” senior Bronson Koenig said. “I just didn’t think we let anything get to us.”
The senior from La Crosse, Wis., was a big part of that, not letting a scoreless first half prevent him from scoring a team-high 17 points, including five 3-pointers, to lift No.22 Wisconsin to 66-49 victory over Minnesota Sunday at the Kohl Center.
The game was critical on many levels for the Badgers (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten), the most important being putting a three-game losing streak to bed and heading to this week’s Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C. with some momentum.
“We lost damn-near every game in February and still finished second,” senior Nigel Hayes said. “We must be doing something well. When we play well and play together and do what we’re supposed to do, I feel like we can be very good.”
Finishing in a tie with Maryland for second place in the Big Ten conference, Wisconsin earned the No.2 seed in this week’s conference tournament based on UW’s head-to-head win over the Terrapins Feb.19. The Badgers will play Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT against the Thursday winner of No.7 seed Iowa and No.10 seed Indiana on BTN.
“It’s been a rough two weeks, but I couldn’t be more proud of a group of 17 young men that stuck together, really circled the wagons, had each other’s back,” Gard said. “They had to work through some tough times.”
The Badgers again struggled to finish inside, a growing trend and concern considering its one-and-done games from this point forward. UW hit only 14 shots on over 30 attempts in the lane and went just 6-for-16 from the free throw lane. But dropping eight 3-point shots erases a lot of ills.
“Just the togetherness, the grittiness, that was us,” Gard said.
Pressed to define further, Gard said Wisconsin defended aggressively to force tough shots, adding that is in the “pillars of our DNA and the foundation of our program.”
It also helped that scoring on the offensive end allowed Wisconsin to set its defense in the half court, critical in holding Minnesota’s offense – which had put up 80 points in four straight games – to its lowest point total since Jan.11.
“If we kept playing the same type of defense we had been playing in that losing streak, the streak would have continued,” senior Vitto Brown said. “That was in the back of our minds from the beginning of the game. We knew we had to be better, first and foremost, and the offense would take care of itself.”
Junior Nate Mason scored 17 points on 20 shots for Minnesota (23-8, 11-7), which saw its eight game winning streak snapped and its skid against the Badgers reach seven after shooting 23.3 percent (7-for-30) after halftime.
The Gophers’ win streak started shortly after Wisconsin’s 78-76 overtime victory at Williams Arena in late January, a game decided in part by Koenig’s dagger 3-pointers. Different location, same story.
“He comes off a ball screen and pulls and we weren't up to the level of the screen,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “Now he got cookin' now, too. He's a really good player, but we weren't up to the level of the screen we talked about.”
Koenig wasn’t alone in having a stellar sendoff. Hayes and Zak Showalter each added 12 points while Brown’s vicious one-handed slam dunk punctuated an 18-2 run in the second half that put Wisconsin up 48-35 with 11:31 remaining.
Wisconsin's four-man senior class combined for 46 of the Badgers' 66 points, including 29 of 39 in second half. The group also added 17 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocks.
“Countless contributions from everybody,” Gard said. “Whether it was rebounds, guys knocking balls loose defensively, guys on the floor, it was fun to watch.”
Brown, Hayes and Showalter scored 17 of Wisconsin’s 27 first-half points, and Ethan Happ led the team in points (eight) and rebounds (seven), but the Badgers still slogged through another poor-shooting period. After scoring eight points in the first 3:45, UW scored only four in its next 14 possessions, spanning the next nine minutes.
It was the exact problem Showalter complained about Thursday after UW’s 59-57 loss to Iowa, starting strong out of the locker room for quickly petering out of gas.
Only this time Wisconsin had another gear. On its first 12 possessions of the second half Wisconsin missed three two-point shots and drained four 3-pointers – two from Koenig, one from Hayes and one from Showalter. It was just the tip of the iceberg.
A personal 6-0 run by D'Mitrik Trice on consecutive possessions got the Badgers humming and Brown’s dunk helped Wisconsin outscored Minnesota 21-6 over the opening 8:28. UW delivered despite Happ only scoring one point in the second half.
“We’re a dangerous team when we make shots,” Showalter said, finishing with his third straight game in double figures. “(When) we share the ball well like we did, we can beat anyone. It’s good to get that confidence back in all of us.”
Even when the Gophers tried to make things interesting, cutting the lead to 51-45 with 6:20 remaining, the Badgers closed the game on a 15-4 run, 11 being scored by Koenig over the final five possessions.
It’s shooting that can get Wisconsin back trending in the right direction with time winding down.
“There’s definitely some unfinished business that we have, especially with our early exit last year in the Big Ten tournament,” Koenig said. “We want to take every game, take every day seriously and just get better every single day.”